Just two years ago Ticonderoga leaders envisioned a vibrant commercial district at its “Four Corners.” The area surrounding the intersection of Routes 9N and 74 already had Wal-mart attracting thousands of shoppers. Lowe’s and Dunkin’ Donuts had just opened. Rite Aid, wanting to be where the action is, moved from its downtown location to the “Four Corners.” Plans were being discussed to bring national hotel and restaurant chains along with several smaller retailers to the area.
To prepare for the economic boom, the town extended infrastructure in the area. New York State modified Route 9N to handle the expected increase in traffic.
Ticonderoga seemed poised to make an economic leap. Today, those dreams have been dashed. Dunkin’ Donuts closed just a few months after opening and now sits empty. Plans for the hotel and restaurant collapsed. This week Lowe’s unexpectedly closed, leaving 86 people unemployed and a 124,000 square feet building empty.
Wal-mart remains and — like it or not — is the community’s retail engine.
When Wal-mart expressed interest in Ticonderoga more than a decade ago, a common debate took place. Are “big box” stores good for communities? With the loss of Lowe’s, that debate has been renewed without an answer. Lowe’s failed, leaving behind a huge warehouse-type building that could sit vacant for years. Wal-mart has succeeded, providing jobs, area shoppers goods and local government taxes.
Where does Ticonderoga go from here?
No one can accuse local leaders of being disengaged. The community has the Ticonderoga Montcalm Street Partnership, Ticonderoga Revitalization Alliance, Ti Economic Development Committee, PRIDE and the Ticonderoga Area Chamber of Commerce all working to improve the local economy. And it has plans. There’s the Quality Destination Plan, the National Main Street Trust plan and plans to construct a replica 18th Century sawmill to serve as a tourist draw and economic hub.
Ticonderoga is not alone. Communities throughout the North Country are struggling to improve their economies. Almost all have similar local groups working on the issue. And there have been state programs, like the now-defunct Empire State Development Zones, that were supposed to spur economic development. Offering tax breaks, loans and other incentives, the EDZ program was supposed to bring major manufacturers and jobs to the North Country. To take full advantage of the program Essex County beefed up its Industrial Development Agency and communities constructed industrial parks awaiting companies. Today, those parks in Ticonderoga, Moriah, Schroon Lake and Keeseville sit mostly empty.
Walking along Main Street in Port Henry recently, Tom Scozzafava could only shake his head.
“I’m frustrated,” the Moriah supervisor admitted. “Our economy is worse now than when the (iron) mines closed in 1972. Look at the businesses that have closed in the last three years. Port Henry’s main street doesn’t have a single business on its east side.
“What do we have to do? Why can’t we attract business here,” Scozzafava asked. “What do we need to do? I don’t have the answer, but I know we need to do a lot of soul searching.”
The loss of Lowe’s is a blow the area economy, but perhaps it’s also an opportunity to do that “soul searching.” What type of economic development does a community want? What type is needed? What type is realistic? Those and many other questions need to be answered, especially before local communities roll out the red carpet for another big box retailer.